Why Dawson Opposed Our Bourgeois Mind

 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24).

This Gospel passage provides us with proper framework to evaluate Christopher Dawson’s controversial essay, “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind.” Dawson is not an economist and is not writing an economic treatise. As an historian of culture and ideas, he is criticizing a particular mindset or spirit which has fundamentally shaped and governed the modern world. Dawson’s central thesis throughout his corpus is that religion is the very heart of culture. He recognizes that today our heart is not religion, but rather wealth. The problem is not capitalist economics, but rather the mind or soul with which it is practiced and the lack of a genuine religious framework to guide it. For Dawson, the bourgeois soul worships wealth and earthly prosperity above God, and thus practices a new secular religion.

Dawson’s essay caused quite a stir when it was republished by Crisis in January 2012. In particular, Jeffrey Tucker and John Zmirak forcefully rejected Dawson’s claims, while Gerald Russello somewhat cautiously defended him. The debate has resurfaced recently as Zmirak has republished his article with a new title, “Christopher Dawson’s Economic Blindness,” with Dale Coulter responding on First Things (which I recommend reading alongside of this piece). I would like to respond to Tucker and Zmirak before offering my own defense of Dawson.

Jeffrey Tucker does not directly respond to Dawson’s claims. Rather, he attempts to justify bourgeois culture by appeal to two of its general effects, an argument which is subject to the fallacy of appeal to consequences. However, he offers no direct defense of the bourgeois mind that produced these effects, which, once again, is what Dawson attacks. Although we can recognize the desirability of sleeping in a comfortable bed and, of course, of a longer life expectancy (the two effects that Tucker emphasizes), we can still ask the question: “what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matt 16:26).

If the bourgeois mind is bent on comfort and earthly prosperity above all else, we have to question its accomplishments. The problem is that the bourgeois mind makes the goods of the earth an end in themselves. Our life on earth, however, is a means to a greater end, our only final end, which is life everlasting. A short life expectancy in the midst of an impoverished, but happier and holier culture would certainly be preferable to a long life expectancy in the midst of a culture bent on self-satisfaction and spiritual destruction. The life of sanctity is rigorous, and as Dawson says, we have to “choose the difficult and hazardous way of creative spiritual activity, which is the way of the saints.”

Tucker asserts in defense of bourgeois culture that “every innovation in this period led to a gigantic leap forward for life.” In spite of our longer life expectancy, St. John Paul II rightly points out that we have created a culture of death. We cannot judge the quality of our lives from a material perspective. Bourgeois culture has given us many desirable things, but this spirit bent on material prosperity has also given us many other things—things which threaten and undermine human life, turning it into a commodity. One must fear the further unfolding of bourgeois culture, not because material advancements are bad, but that they are occurring in the midst of the greatest spiritual crisis we have ever known. As Dawson argues in Understanding Europe, “there has never been a society so totally absorbed in the technique and equipment of civilization or more neglectful of the ultimate spiritual values for sake of which the human race exists” (232). We need a conversion of the bourgeois spirit into a Christian spirit to make proper use of these advancements.

Zmirak employs strong rhetoric against Dawson, but like Tucker, he also does not strike me as taking Dawson’s core argument very seriously (except as an object to be thrown across the room). Fundamentally, Dawson is accused of rejecting prudence and good sense, even to the point of reducing us to an animal condition! It is important to remember that Dawson is accused of this for encouraging us to follow the Gospel’s teaching on trust in providence. It is true that Dawson opposes the “spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence,” but, I think this must be understood in light of his overall goal. It is not so much that he rejects prudence, but that he is trying to reassert the primacy of religion, especially in the sphere of economics. If anything, I would fault Dawson for not stating explicitly how the Gospel rightly orders the bourgeois mind, as occurred in the Middle Ages through the guild system.

Next, Dawson is criticized for contrasting bourgeois culture with the Baroque. Once again, Zmirak misunderstands Dawson’s point. In upholding the Baroque, he is not arguing for the model virtue of the Spaniards in the New World, but rather he points toward a more Catholic understanding of money as a means to an end. (In the Spaniards defense, however, we should recognize, in spite of the problems of American colonization, that they also gave us Las Casas and Vitoria). The true end, Dawson insists, of wealth, and all else for that matter, is the glory of God.

Finally, Zmirak lumps Dawson together with the fascist, Ezra Pound. I find this assertion particularly absurd, because Dawson spent the Second World War leading an ecumenical and anti-totalitarian movement, The Sword of the Spirit, which promoted unity and peace.

Like Tucker, Zmirak neither genuinely engages Dawson’s argument nor offers a substantive response to it. Fundamentally, Dawson does not reject economics (as in economic blindness), but rather insists that economics must fit into a broader vision, which cannot ultimately be bourgeois, but must be Christian. Dawson is not challenging economic principles; he is challenging us. He recognizes that “we are all more or less bourgeois and our civilization is bourgeois from top to bottom.” The bourgeois mind should not shape us fundamentally, but needs to be subordinate or converted to “the mind of Christ.” As St. Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

It would, of course, be possible to interpret Dawson simply as rejecting the material progress of civilization, as his critics have done. Even Russello seems to admit the grounds for this. Although Tucker, somewhat ironically, accuses Dawson of focusing simply on the beautiful artifacts of Christian culture, Dawson notes that the products of bourgeois culture are “not merely offensive to the aesthetic sense, they are symptoms of social disease and spiritual failure.” Once again, we see Dawson’s true aim here. His defense of traditional society, centered on agriculture and family, is not simply a nostalgic desire, but a recognition that the bourgeois culture we have produced has threatened these fundamental human realities, creating a “divorce of man from nature and from the life of the earth.”

Dawson rightly recognizes that the modern spiritual crisis largely revolves around the place of money, or mammon. In response, he seeks to uphold the dignity of work, which is something more than simply earning a wage or the accumulation of wealth. Dawson fundamentally stands against the primacy of money and wealth in human society: “In short the bourgeois is essentially a moneymaker, at once its servant and its master, and the development of his social ascendancy shows the degree to which civilization and human life are dominated by the money power.” That is not the same thing as rejecting their importance, but only their dominance. Dawson seeks to relativize money with the assistance of St. Thomas, showing that money is simply a means and not an end.

In fact, Pope John Paul has argued in a similar vein in Laborem Exercens:

This way of stating the issue contained a fundamental error, what we can call the error of economism, that of considering human labour solely according to its economic purpose. This fundamental error of thought can and must be called an error of materialism, in that economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and the personal (man’s activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality.

John Paul’s call for a civilization of love, rather than a culture of death, can also be seen to support Dawson’s view. Charity sees beyond the self to a further end in God. Dawson, once again, reveals his true religious or spiritual aim: “The essential question is not the question of economics, but the question of love.” And further: “Seen from this point of view, it is obvious that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love.” Dawson is fundamentally hitting at the mind we need, in order to use money well, not only in supporting ourselves and our families, but in ordering our lives toward the Kingdom.

Ultimately, Dawson challenges our current status quo, which even defender of the bourgeois mind should appreciate. He recognizes that the spirit of capitalism has passed into something more degenerate, a post-bourgeois culture, though still focused on economics as its end:

Capitalism may well survive, but it will be a controlled and socialized capitalism which aims rather at maintaining the general standard of life than at the reckless multiplication of wealth by individuals. Yet the mere slowing down of the tempo of economic life, the transformation of capitalism from a dynamic to a static form will not in itself change the spirit of our civilization. Even if it involves the passing of the bourgeois type in its classical nineteenth-century form, it may only substitute a post-bourgeois type which is no less dominated by economic motives, though it is more mechanized and less dominated by the competitive spirit.

This hits the nail right on the head.

Likewise, Dawson genuinely points to the answer, in line with his central insight on religion as the true heart of culture:

It is only in religion that we shall find a spiritual force that can accomplish a spiritual revolution. The true opposite to the bourgeois is not to be found in the communist, but in the religious man—the man of desire. The bourgeois must be replaced not so much by another class as by another type of humanity

The bourgeois soul for Dawson is not found simply in support of the free market. The bourgeois soul is found when one puts money above God, in contrast to the religious man, who places God first.

Catholics in good faith can disagree on the legitimacy of modern economic practices. I would, however, argue that Dawson’s thesis on the mind that governs these practices should be taken seriously. He calls us to return to the service of God rather than the service of mammon. Seeking first the kingdom will not ruin our economic lives and return us to the state of animals, but will provide us with a better way of organizing our new found technology, health, and wealth. Dawson’s prophetic voice proclaims the need to reevaluate our view of wealth. It is a means and not an end. We need to refocus on our true end to transform our post-bourgeois culture into a genuinely Christian one.


R. Jared Staudt, PhD is associate superintendent for Mission and Formation in the Archdiocese of Denver and visiting professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author, most recently, of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press, 2020) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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